Mitchell provided leadership, toughness in first season with Panthers

Florida Panthers defenseman Willie Mitchell (33) is just the eighth captain in franchise history.

Tom Szczerbowski/Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

After a grueling hike up the side of a prominent peak outside of New York’s distinguished West Point Military Academy, the Florida Panthers named Willie Mitchell the eighth captain in franchise history in an emotional ceremony atop a conquered Mt. Thorne.

And although the Panthers would inevitably fall just short of the postseason, Mitchell firmly believes that his team is close to reaching the summit they had hoped to ascend when the season began.

"We’re still really disappointed because we think we had a good enough team that if we got to the playoffs we’d make some noise," said Mitchell, who signed a two-year deal with the Panthers last summer. "Part of that is learning when you fall short like that. It’s kind of what drives you to get over that hump."

Well before the "C" had ever been stitched onto his jersey, Mitchell could already been seen asserting himself as a leader among Florida’s talented young core and even served as an early mentor and landlord to No. 1 overall pick Aaron Ekblad.

While players like Ekblad, Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad were tasked with lighting the lamp and putting up points, it was Mitchell’s job throughout the season to stoke the flames of the fire burning beneath them.

Whether it was through his gritty play on the ice or simply a few words of encouragement on the bench, Mitchell helped spark several comeback victories throughout the season and never once shirked his duties.

In fact, even when a concussion knocked him out of the lineup for several weeks, Mitchell could still be found roaming the locker room before and after games attempting to motivate his teammates, or as Bjugstad called it, "doing his captain thing."

"You think about all the great players that have been captain in the National Hockey League so it’s not something I took lightly," said Mitchell, who recorded three goals and eight points in 66 games. "I tried to pour my heart into it and hopefully I did things the right way. I’m sure I messed up a few things along the way, we all do in life, but it was a good challenge and a good learning experience for me."

A look back

WHAT HE DID RIGHT

While his offensive numbers left something to be desired, Mitchell served as a reliable defensive presence on Florida’s blue line nearly ever game. Always willing to sacrifice his body for the good of the team, he racked up a team-best 144 blocked shots and several bruises along the way. His greatest contributions, however, came on the penalty kill where he averaged a team-high 3:16 per game.

WHERE HE NEEDS TO IMPROVE

At 37 years old, what you see is what you get with Mitchell at this point in his career. He may not show up often on the scoresheet, but the 13-year NHL veteran can still execute his role perfectly in the defensive zone and always knows exactly where’s he’s supposed to be on the ice. At this point, the best Mitchell can hope for is to stay the course and fend off Father Time for another year.

BEST GAME

Draft update

Jan. 8 at Canucks. In a game centered on Roberto Luongo’s return to Vancouver, Mitchell played an integral role in making sure his goaltender would leave with a win. With Florida in penalty trouble throughout the night, Mitchell played a game-high 6:26 on the penalty kill as the Panthers stifled all six Vancouver power plays en route to a 3-1 victory.

ADVANCED STATS

Mitchell led all Panthers defensemen with 738 defensive zone starts, signifying that he truly was utilized as head coach Gerard Gallant’s defensive anchor. At even strength, he finished with a respectable Corsi For of 50.3 percent while allowing only 22.7 scoring chances per 60 minutes.

LOOKING AHEAD

You can follow Jameson Olive on Twitter @JamesonCoop or email him at JamesonOlive@gmail.com.